Fireworks safer than ever but still risky

By HOLLI CHMELA  |  July 1, 2005 at 5:30 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) -- It's the Fourth of July: How safe are your fireworks?

Currently, 45 states including the District of Columbia permit all types of consumer fireworks to be sold and used. Only Arizona, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island ban all consumer fireworks.

But while fireworks-related injuries have fluctuated negligibly in recent years, private use has increased and industry security and safety standards are considered more rigorous.

Consumer fireworks, or DOT 1.4G fireworks, are classified as legal under federal law through testing by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Once classified as legal by the CPSC, the permits and inspections of consumer fireworks retailers fall under the jurisdiction of state law enforcement and fire marshals.

Fireworks that do not meet the CPSC's testing procedures, are then classified as commercial or display fireworks and require a federal license to purchase and use them, or are taken off the market and classified as federally illegal.

The CPSC also works with Customs and Border Patrol to stop the import of illegal fireworks. In its 2004 study, CPSC and Customs selectively sampled and tested 296 shipments of fireworks. Approximately 28 percent of the shipments were found to contain illegal fireworks, accounting for more than 4.5 million units with violations serious enough to warrant seizure or other actions by Customs.

CPSC does not take a stance on the banning of consumer fireworks, but spokesperson Patty Davis said, "Our primary goal is since there are fireworks on the market, our priority is making sure people are safe."

"Safety and security have always been top priorities for this industry," said Julie L. Heckman, American Pyrotechnics Association's executive director. The APA is the leading trade association for the fireworks industry and has been campaigning to keep consumer fireworks legal and safe.

Heckman said the APA works closely with the federal and state agencies that regulate and control fireworks, including the Department of Transportation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the CPSC, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and now the Department of Homeland Security.

"Following the atrocious events of Sept. 11, 2001, new regulations on the explosives industry have affected our public display companies," Heckman told UPI. "It's already a heavily regulated industry, how much more regulation do we need?"

Heckman said as a result of the Safe Explosions Act, entertainment pyrotechnics must go through three or four levels of criminal background checks and licensing in order to put on a Fourth of July fireworks display.

"The bottom line is that it is much harder to qualify to work on a fireworks display -- even one display a year -- than it is to become a firefighter, a police officer, or an ATF agent," Heckman said in a press release last week.

"We've never had any issues with security problems," Heckman said, "Fireworks are not used for terrorism."

APA said the National Fire Protection Association's campaign to ban consumer fireworks was unfair, and was hurting an industry already burdened by "numerous uncoordinated and often overlapping regulations and inspections that add nothing to public safety but have added huge cost burdens."

The NFPA strongly urges consumers and families to participate in public displays organized by their town or city. "Those are trained professionals putting on the displays," said Margie Coloian, NFPA spokesperson. "We are very concerned with consumer fireworks. There's no safe way to use them."

"Today's consumer fireworks are strictly regulated, quite safe when used properly, and injuries have declined by almost 75 percent during the past decade," Heckman said. She said fireworks use has more than tripled since 1990.

At a fireworks stand set up in a parking lot on the corner of Lee Highway and Nutley Street in Fairfax, VA, right outside Washington, D.C., posted signs warn "No Smoking" and "No discharge of fireworks within 50 feet." In Virginia, minors are prohibited from purchasing all types of fireworks.

"They are definitely cutting back on what people can sell, especially in certain areas, residential areas, like around here," said Brian Barnes, a Northern Virginia resident who has worked at the fireworks stand for six years. "You have to be careful with all of them. It's still a firework."

Fire Chief Bill Killen, president-elect of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a 49-year veteran firefighter, said fireworks were one of the most risky consumer products, and lack of supervision was a major problem.

"Parents are always over-protective of anything for their kids," said Barnes. "We usually tell them, 'Have fun. Be careful.'"

"These are all pretty tame," he added, pointing out the varieties available in his stand. "Nothing will launch in the air or explode. None of these are gonna go 'boom.' If anything happened, there would just be a fire."

According to NFPA data, 60 percent of the victims of Fourth of July fireworks are under the age of 19, with children between five and nine most at risk for injury. The CPSC 2004 Fireworks Annual Report says that firecrackers and sparklers, which can burn at more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, account for most fireworks injuries.

"All fireworks are dangerous, including ones that are legal," Killen told UPI. The IAFC is part of an alliance of over 20 organizations lead by the NFPA that support a ban of all consumer fireworks.

During a one month period including the weeks before and after July 4, 2003, the NFPA said of the 9,300 fireworks injuries reported to emergency departments, 84 percent involved fireworks that federal regulations permit consumers to use.

Burns were the leading type of injury accounting for 63 percent of all fireworks related injuries, 18 percent were contusions and lacerations, hands or fingers made up 26 percent, 20 percent of the cases involved eye injuries, and other parts of the face or head accounted for 17 percent of the injuries.

From 1997 to 2001, eight people were killed on average annually in fires started by fireworks and seven people were killed directly by fireworks.

"Every year at this time of year, people are injured by consumer fireworks," said Jon Mark Hirshon, MD, MPH, FACEP, spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians. "Most people are relatively blasé about injuries from fireworks. But when you talk to emergency workers, firefighters, people aware ... they really know the dangers."

The ACEP also supports a ban of all consumer fireworks.

"It comes down to the health of the public versus the personal liberties argument and economic issues," Hirshon told UPI.

"There's no question people can have fun with fireworks," Hirshon said, "But it's no fun once you lose the use of a hand or an eye."

Rather than facing the crowds in downtown Washington, Barnes said more people are putting on their own neighborhood or family displays. "It's the Fourth of July This is what people do on the Fourth. As long as you're careful, none of these are too bad," he said.

Barnes said the names of fireworks brands have changed, reflecting the public's patriotic attitude. "It used to be fireworks were called monster this or monster that, but now they're more patriotic. 'These Colors Don't Run' is one. There are stars and stripes instead of monsters," he said.

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